In a memorable scene of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, from an episode in one of the later seasons, White House staffer Will Bailey is discussing with a team of interns a script for a possible political ad. To paraphrase the scene described: “A family station wagon headed up a mountain road: mom and dad up front, the crying in the backseat and Rex the dog whining, the car stalling: dad getting out of the driver’s seat, and he’s wearing a gas mask; and as the shot pulls away, the cause of his problems: he’s towing an oil tanker.”
The basic student of rhetoric will be familiar with the three classical appeals outlined by Aristotle—logos, ethos, and pathos—and will recognize this obviously as a quintessential message of the latter sort, the pathos appeal. This appeal to commonly-shared values which correspond to emotional reactions in the attending subject is in some ways the weakest, but in other ways the strongest, of the appeals of rhetoric. Doubtless it is the most common in political discourse nowadays.
Imagine this, then: “Scene: a grocery store aisle, the words ‘organic’ and ‘anti-biotic free’ emblazoned everywhere the eye turns; a mother lifting her crying babe from the shopping cart and pulling it toward her breast; the child screaming and struggling to get away, and as the woman begins to turn down her collar to provide an avenue of nourishment for her child, a tattoo revealed of the skull and cross-bones, universal icon of POISON.”
Well, okay, we’ll admit there’s more than one reason I don’t craft political ads for a living. The goal of the ad should be obvious enough: that, even amidst our culture’s craze for organic living and healthy food choices, human breast-milk often goes unremarked for being (ironically) one of the most toxic food-sources available to a newborn—a fact pointed out by many studies.
But the flaw of the message in this “ad” goes beyond my admittedly ham-fisted approach in crafting it: it’s in the appeal itself. The pathos appeal doesn’t allow the careful distinctions that are wanted for the important matters our politics often needs to parse; nonetheless, it remains the go-to methodology for vote-getting and scare-mongering. A viewer of my “ad,” for example, might think its upshot is to condemn breastfeeding as an undesirable choice: but that is certainly far from my intent. But how, in our sound-bite culture and lazy intellectual milieu, to communicate instead the deep and subtle irony at work? One thing’s for certain, Twitter doesn’t offer the solution.
Why mention Twitter? Because this social network—famous (or infamous?) for imposing the limitation of 140 characters on all messages—has been the locus of a recent controversy surrounding organic foods, a controversy imbricated with the irony of how often unhealthy tendencies characterize many of those seeking so desperately after “healthy alternatives.”
The controversy I have in mind has to do with Eden Foods, Inc., the oldest and largest family-owned organic produce company in North America. Until recently a doyen of trendy liberals who pride themselves on “reading the label,” the company has now come under fire from within its ardent fan-base. Why? Because in March the company’s founder, Michael Potter, was announced as party to a suit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services complaining of the so-called “HHS Mandate.” The mandate is a rule pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) that stipulates contraceptives be covered in all health plans offered for employees (unless you’re one of the lucky companies or labor unions offered an exemption). The suit, filed on behalf of Potter by the Thomas More Law Center, points to the company owner’s Catholic faith as one reason for objecting to the rule; but Potter’s reasons don’t stop there.
Potter is, you see, serious about the mission of his company: the “healthy choice” and the “environmental-friendly alternative”. And, as his remarks in the press have revealed, Potter sees a fundamental contradiction between seeking to eliminate toxins, artificial hormones, chemicals, and antibiotics from our crops and our diets, on the one hand; and then turning around and taking those same toxins into our bodies directly, in the form of over-the-counter or prescription oral contraceptives (and thence passing those toxins either into the environment through excretion or into one’s children through reproduction).
But Potter’s now-former supporters will have none of it. They’ve taken Twitter to vent their vitriolic frustration in 140-character-long hit pieces, coining trend-markers (i.e., the ubiquitous “hash tags”) such as #SexismFreeFoods, and excoriating Potter for hiding a “right-wing agenda,” for conducting a “crusade against birth control,” and for espousing an “anti-woman” ethic.
Now, it’s noteworthy that if one searches “Eden Foods” on Twitter, you’ll find the “conversation” (such as it is) remarkably one-sided—and not for lack of effort by people like me who are “standing with Eden Foods”. But this one-sidedness in representation makes the claim that Potter is somehow tightly networked with “right wing conservatives” rather laughable. I am one of the few very vocal supporters of Eden Foods any Google search even might turn up; and I personally would reject vehemently any assignation of “right-wing” ideologue (or even “conservative,” for that matter, insofar as the term indexes any pre-fabbed set of recognizable political leanings). It may disappoint the Twittering classes and make for a weaker pathos appeal, but the facts of this case are simply more complex than a 140-character summation could ever capture.
Eden Foods’ lawsuit is about sustainability and subsidiarity. It is about the nature of law itself and whether any law that compels material cooperation in evil can be a just one (hint: Aquinas says “no”). It is about the rights of conscience and the compartmentalization of religion. It is about attempts to subjugate the sciences of ethics and philosophy to those of politics and economics.
But most of all, the case is about when the occasional hard nut to crack crops up in the pile of old chestnuts that constitutes our party politicking and cultural cliquing. It is a point of fascinating collision when hippy liberal ecological values meet crusty conservative social ones. It is an exhibit of the ironic contradictions which so many people live out from day to day without ever taking critical inventory of their internal consistencies and external constituencies. And it is an emblem of how desperately we need to reshape our public discourse to grapple with problems that tweets and political ads, for all their pathos appeal, cannot ever comprehend.
. See, for example, the work of the MOMS initiative (“Making our Milk Safe”) at http://www.safemilk.org/about/.
. For more information on this case, visit the author’s website at www.StandingWithEdenFoods.com.
Recent posts in Joseph Grabowski